If students have the will, Sequoia High has the way

EVERETT — It starts off quietly.

Hands beating on tables and walls inside a small conference room, growing louder and louder. Suddenly the room erupts into chaos as a bullhorn blares. Cheering teachers, noisemakers in hand, chase a group of students clad in caps and gowns into the halls of the school while a boom box thrums with Kool &the Gang.

“Celebrate good times, come on! Let’s celebrate!”

As the graduating students run in and out of every classroom, hugging teachers, giving each other high fives, their classmates stand up and applaud.

They are taking part in the Parade: a unique tradition at Sequoia High School that happens eight times a year.

The Everett School District’s only alternative high school breaks up its school year into eight terms, giving students who fall behind or miss school multiple chances to come back and begin moving forward again, says Kelly Shepherd, Sequoia’s principal.

“It’s a fresh start every 20 days,” Shepherd says.

Because of that rolling credit system, many students don’t necessarily graduate at the end of the year. The Parade is a chance to honor students who may not make it back for the formal ceremony in June. It’s also a chance to model success for other students, to show them that they can do it, too.

That is not lost on Alex Neill.

“That was once in a lifetime,” exclaims Alex, 19, after running down the halls during his own Parade. “For four years now, I’ve watched kids do it term after term after term after term, and it was finally my turn.”

Alex admits that he dug himself a deep hole early in his high school career. He recalls his 14-year-old self as a kid whose only goal was to get high. Suddenly he found himself frequently suspended or on probation. He was checked into inpatient treatment. By the end of his freshman year, Alex had only 2 ½ credits.

A move to Sequoia helped. He stopped smoking pot and changed some of his priorities. But things did not click. He was still unfocused, still barely catching up on school credits.

Things changed in an instant, though.

“The reality of being a father did not hit me essentially until she was born.”

On Oct. 15, 2011, Alex’s girlfriend, Caitlin Stusser, gave birth to their daughter, Sophie Anne Neill.

Alex made a choice. He finally decided he had to turn things around. Starting a full-time job as a prep chef at Campbell’s StockPot facility in Everett meant working with Sequoia staff to accommodate a new schedule. He would take three classes in the morning at Sequoia, then immediately head off to a full day of work. He also started taking online classes to make up even more credit.

Soon, Alex was catching up. His senior year, he earned more credits than he had his entire sophomore and junior years combined.

“Within one year, I went from being a burnout, lazy pothead to a full-time working father and spouse and supporter of a family,” Alex says.

Staff at Sequoia noticed the change. So did students. The 70 graduates of Sequoia High School chose Alex to speak at this month’s graduation ceremony.

Sequoia counselor Niki Duncan witnessed Alex’s transformation firsthand.

Working as a counselor at Cascade High School at the time, Duncan was there when Alex entered the school a lost, angry freshman. She says she has watched him grow from a boy into a man.

Some of the stories at Sequoia are heartbreaking, Duncan says. Witnessing the transformations, wonderful.

“There’s nothing more exciting to me than to see someone achieve their dreams,” she says, her eyes welling up with tears. “They just touch your heart so much that when you see them succeed despite the many challenges. It’s just the happiest feeling in the world.”

“I feel like I’m beating the stereotype,” Alex says. “I pay all the bills. I go to work full time. I’ve got my diploma. I love my daughter. I would do anything for her. I love my girlfriend. I would do anything for her.

“My world is just so drastically different now from where it was just two years ago that it’s hard to even comprehend it.”

Students’ reasons for attending Sequoia vary widely, but they all made a choice to be there.

“They all have a resiliency and tenacity. Something is causing them to still want to focus on school and make a better life for themselves,” principal Shepherd says.

She often tells students that Sequoia is a hard school to get into, but once you’re here, “our staff takes you on and they’re going to work just as hard as you to help you be successful.”

No one can doubt Nina Kiaer’s will to succeed. As a sophomore at Everett High School, Nina was taking all Advanced Placement and honors classes. Then, at 15, she found out she was pregnant. She finished that year at Everett. Her son, Colton, was born that July. In the fall, Nina started at Sequoia.

For Nina, Colton, and Colton’s father, Robin Wright, who also transferred to Sequoia, the school provided something essential: on-site daycare. “If it wasn’t there, I probably would have ended up with a GED,” Nina says. She wanted to breast-feed Colton, to hold him close when he was small. Sequoia made that possible.

That doesn’t mean it was easy. Nina, now 17, still wanted to take advanced classes. Sequoia staff made it happen. Nina found herself in an AP English class where she was the only student. She and her teacher would work one-on-one every day, sitting across from each other at a desk in an empty classroom.

With Sequoia providing the needed resources and support, Nina got to work. She even managed to graduate a year early.

“I just wanted to be the best I could possibly be at that school,” Nina says.

Nina, her son and Robin share a single room in a house in south Everett. Nina would work on homework while Colton napped or played with his father. The extra classes were stressful, but Colton provided the extra motivation. “Maybe one day Colton can look back and see what I did and he’ll have the same sort of motivation I did to get through school.”

Nina knows that some people look at Sequoia in a negative way. But if they took the time to really see, they would find students choosing to succeed despite their circumstances.

“You have to go find it yourself,” Nina says. “You can’t just wait for it to come to you.”

During lunchtime at Sequoia, toddlers sit with their parents and the other students in the lunchroom. Teachers often hold babies while they chat about what’s going on in students’ lives. They are truly interested in the students.

“It’s almost unbelievable,” Nina says.

Shepherd, the principal, says those relationships are essential to students’ success at Sequoia. Staff know each student’s specific strengths and weaknesses and can fine-tune their approach. It also means that students feel they can come to staff for anything, whether it be academic advice, personal help or just a snack.

“They ask for what they need and we figure out a way to support them,” Shepherd says.

Jennifer Heman — her title at Sequoia is success coordinator — recalls meeting one withdrawn, angry girl for the first time in her office.

Emily Poletto’s mother died when she was a freshman in high school. Emily had no place to live. Relatives and friends provided temporary places to stay, but she lacked a place to call her own. She regularly missed classes at Everett High, but when the school called home to report the absences, there was no one on the other end of the line.

Emily was lost.

Heman and the rest of the staff at Sequoia provided direction. After spending a year on a waiting list, Emily found housing with the organization Friends of Youth. She landed a part-time job at a retirement home nearby. Most importantly, she attended school every day and was able to make up credits.

Emily began to thrive.

Sequoia provides “wrap-around support” for its kids, explains Duncan, the counselor. “Everyone who ends up here just has such a heart for kids.”

Emily looked for a mentor. She found it in success coordinator Heman.

“I do whatever’s needed,” says Heman, adding that some kids just need a hug, a second mom or a cheerleader. “Whatever these kids need is what I feel like my role is.”

Most days during the school year, Emily sat in Heman’s office during lunch breaks or between periods working on scholarship applications or researching college programs.

Graduation night was June 13 at Everett Civic Auditorium. Everett School District Superintendent Gary Cohn stepped to the podium to award the Superintendent Scholar Award. Staff at the high school nominate three students for the award. The superintendent’s office then interviews each student and chooses just one to receive the award.

Heman chokes up as she recounts watching Emily walk across the stage after Cohn called her name.

She was a different girl than the one Heman had met just a year ago.

“What they don’t understand is we get more from them. I get more from these kids than they get from me,” Heman says. “I get something I never knew I needed.”

Tears filled Emily’s eyes as she accepted the award. It had been a long road, an uphill battle that she is still fighting.

Sequoia calls itself “the school of choice.” It starts with choosing to be there every day, showing up to work hard and succeeding. The staff will do everything they can to help you get there, but the student has to want it.

In her apartment, Emily, who is now 19, is looking at the next step. She’s searching for a full-time job while getting ready to enroll at Everett Community College in the fall. She has always wanted to be a veterinarian, but she is not so sure right now. After she graduated, she realized that she could do anything.

Nina and Robin are planning their futures. Scholarship in hand, Nina hopes to go to Bellingham Technical College to become a dental hygienist while Robin is looking at aerospace training.

In the meantime, though, the couple are planning Colton’s first birthday party in July and are looking forward to his first steps.

Alex is in the moment, though. Sure, he would like a new job, something with better pay and hours, but right now he is just proud. Just a couple of hours before his graduation, after practicing his speech to rows of empty seats, Alex sits behind the Everett Civic Auditorium looking back at the long path he walked to get there. He really never thought he would graduate. The reality did not hit him until his daughter’s birth. He made a choice.

“Life has to get real now. I have to get going at this.”

“And,” Alex smiles, “I did.”

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